“For I know not to give flattering titles; in so doing my maker would soon take me away.”
No doubt, Mayor Jerry Sanders sports a busy calendar. Press conferences and Sacramento trips to beg state leaders not to “steal” city funds to balance their own budget can certainly be time killers.
But when the mayor issues press releases announcing that he'll “co-chair” an important blue-ribbon committee at a critical time in San Diego's energy-use history, is that the same thing as leaning on a lectern for a few minutes of jovial introductory comments, then—whoosh!—out the door?
After all, doesn't the term “chairman” imply at least a modicum of time with one's ass in a chair?Perhaps Spin Cycle is being too harsh, but it does seem to be becoming Sanders' version of the late Michael Jackson's patented moonwalk—for the mayor, let's call it the “kick-off / slip-out” dance move—and it still does turn heads when it happens.
Such was the case last Thursday at the kick-off meeting of a whip-smart, City Council-appointed ad-hoc committee that will help determine how the city will spend $12.5 million in energy-efficiency and conservation grants that San Diego is set to receive from the U.S. Department of Energy.
The brief mayoral drop-in didn't faze the other co-chair, Councilmember Donna Frye, who seemed to take seriously the mayor's opening remark, which some in the 40-member audience, judging by the giggles, took as a quip: “Well, Donna, now we're co-chairs—so that will tell you Donna's the boss.”
Not wanting to disappoint the mayor, Frye, with Sanders' surrogate, city public works chief Dave Jarrell, sitting quietly by her side, whisked the 11-member committee through a bevy of topics, many of which seemed to run counter to the plans of the mayor's staff who participated in the two-and-a-half-hour meeting.
Devoted CityBeat readers will recall that the events, culminating in this rather historic meeting of San Diego's best and brightest in the green-energy frontier, were triggered by the mayor's previously dictatorial ideas about how to spend the $12.5 million in so-called Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grants that the Obama administration is dangling before the city.
When a group of City Council members in late April planned a press conference to urge the mayor to seek only $250,000 in planning money prior to requesting the full grant amount, Sanders staffers marched to the council's 10th floor and announced that the mayor already had plans for the money, including the use of $5 million to leverage a $30-million solar-energy project for Balboa Park that would be outsourced to SunEdison, an East Coast company.
Bill Powers, a local solar-energy expert and now a member of the ad-hoc committee, questioned the exorbitant price tag on the project, noting that similar efforts just an hour's drive north of San Diego were costing less than half that. Local labor leaders also expressed disappointment in the mayor's estimate that such a large project would create only 37 jobs over three years.
In his brief comments before the committee last week, Sanders sounded like he agreed.
“We had a list of city projects, and in reviewing them, we don't know that they're the best projects,” he acknowledged. “Frequently what happens is, it's crystal clear in your mind where you want to go, and then when you start getting input, you find that there are much better ideas. That's the way we're approaching this—that the experts on this committee will help save taxpayer money, help save energy and help create jobs.
“And really, job creation is a big part of all the stimulus funding.”
Those admissions seemed to spur confidence among committee members, who proceeded to cast aside other proposals from the mayor's staff. That included rejecting a “hard” deadline of Thursday, July 2, for the public to submit ideas for green stimulus projects, which members unanimously agreed was too stringent. Instead, a “soft” deadline was extended through next week. (For information on how to submit a proposal, go to www.sandiego.gov/environmental-services/energy.)
In addition, the committee unanimously rejected a staff proposal to have an Oakland-based consultant perform a preliminary evaluation of the mayor's initial projects, which one staffer said now numbers “15 to 20” developed ideas, at least triple the number previously reported by Spin Cycle.
Chris Gonaver, head of the city's Environmental Services Department, declined to provide details of the other plans, saying they would be submitted for review like the rest of the projects.
Risa Baron, energy programs supervisor for SDG&E and one of the mayor's picks for the committee, agreed that no projects should be given special treatment. “I want to be fair and equitable to all of them,” she said.
The committee certainly faces a daunting task: giving the public an opportunity to be heard, developing a viable strategy for San Diego's energy future and choosing $12.5 million worth of projects that align with that strategy—all within a timeframe to meet a federal submission deadline of Oct. 23.
While a few audience members stressed that meeting the deadline should be the only goal of the committee, others urged the panel to think big.
As one speaker put it, “San Diego, I think, is a little bit behind in making some of these bold visions. A lot of work has been done already. I don't think it would take a lot of time, but I really encourage you to reach out to some other cities and communities to see how they're planning to use these funds.”
Committee member Paul Hannam, a former Oxford University associate fellow who's developed several green businesses and a “Green MBA” program at San Diego's Alliant University, warned that efforts to change people's behavior typically fail because of a lack of integration.
“I think it's incredibly important to have a strategy and a very clear vision and a very specific outcome,” he said. “San Diego clearly faces a potentially catastrophic future, like a lot of other cities in the state, especially with water issues. So now it's very important to spend the time to think strategically.”
Let's be hopeful the mayor got the message.Got a tip? Send it to email@example.com.